Minnesota Indians cite concerns about U wild rice research

Dan Haugen

Citing spiritual and scientific concerns, northern Minnesota Anishinaabeg Indians are demanding a greater role in the University’s wild rice research.

The significance of wild rice – or manoomin – to the Anishinaabeg people traces back to tribal legend. According to the story, the Creator told their eastern seaboard ancestors to migrate west until they reached the place where food grows on the water. They found that place in the upper Midwest and settled across parts of Michigan, Minnesota, Wisconsin and Canada.

“It’s part of how they identify themselves as Anishinaabeg people,” said Brian Carlson, environmental and political organizer for the White Earth Land Recovery Project. The White Earth reservation covers approximately 1,300 square miles in northwestern Minnesota.

The WELRP, founded by former Green Party vice presidential candidate Winona LaDuke, has been a leader in the effort against the University’s wild rice research. Earlier this year, with input from tribal government representatives, community elders and other interest groups, the WELRP submitted a list of demands to the University regarding its research on wild rice.

Among them, it wants lists of funding sources, involved students and faculty and resulting patents for all wild rice research projects the University undertakes. It also wants a commitment from the University that it will open communication with indigenous peoples.

Phillip Larsen, senior associate dean in the College of Agriculture, Food and Environmental Sciences, said the University has already met with the Anishinaabeg to discuss wild rice research.

“One of the early meetings, we brought our staff up there to let them know exactly what it is we are doing and what we are not doing,” Larsen said.

Since the 1960s, the University has maintained a wild rice breeding program aimed at producing varieties that mature faster, harvest more easily and are more disease resistant. Also, since 1987, agronomy professor Ronald Phillips has worked on mapping the genes of wild rice.

What the University hasn’t done, Larsen said, is produce any hybrid varieties or conduct any genetic engineering of wild rice, as some have alleged.

Developing hybrid varieties, he explained, involves inbreeding a small number of plants that have similar characteristics. What the University is doing involves a larger gene pool.

“This is an approach that has been used for hundreds of years,” Larsen said.

Still, many Anishinaabeg leaders are skeptical.

“There hasn’t been any research for the biological impacts,” said John Persell, director of water quality for the Minnesota Chippewa Tribe. He said he would like the University to fund a study on “genetic contamination” of natural wild rice beds.

The fear is that if the University’s commercialized wild rice varieties were mixed with natural bed rice, it might permanently alter the species.

But Larsen said the University has no intention to release commercialized varieties into nature. He said that if they inadvertently were released, it’s doubtful the domesticated wild rice would survive.

Larsen also said the University is currently gathering information related to the WELRP request and will release it within a month.